A Lesson from Comics History

It’s always a good idea to learn from the successes and failures of the past:

1960s Marvel provided verisimilitude and continuity to characters, allowing characters to experience consequences that mattered to the story, and thus to the readers. When Sue and Johnny’s father died in Fantastic Four Issue 32, it was a permanent change for them and the rest of the team. When the Thing crushed Doctor Doom’s hands in Issue 40, it was a driver for Doom’s revenge twenty issues later in Issue 60 — there was memory of the insult and damage, the thirst for Doom’s revenge upon the Thing, creating an element of verisimilitude for the readers. This is how readers expected the arrogant Victor von Doom would behave–it made sense and it felt “real” to them.

Chris’ page on “How to Make Great Comics” highlights this formula, but I believe that Chris, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby were on the wrong track by calling it “Realism”. I believe the word they wanted was “Verisimilitude”–it needs to feel or appear real enough to generate belief. It does not necessarily need to be “real”, but rather “real enough”. The scientific jargon Reed Richards uses doesn’t have to come from a real-world physics text, but it needs to be believable enough to the reader to give that impression to the story. The verisimilitude benefits from continuity and is reinforced by it. Discontinuity tends to pull the reader out of the story.

What is clear is that when Marvel was sold in 1968, the bonds of continuity and verisimilitude were being damaged and ultimately removed. With that removal, the quality of the books began to suffer. Under the sale, Marvel was no longer under the agreement with National Periodicals to limit the number of its titles, and that number almost doubled in two years. But, the creative engines that built the 1967 Marvel were leaving or had left. Working within those externally imposed limits may have also contributed to the 1960s Marvel’s sharp writing, tight pacing, and innovative art. The quality of the books declined rapidly with the onset of the 1970s, and this was quickly seen in the sales.

I re-created the graph that is on Chris’s page discussing the Marvel Universe and how it lost its way. My version removes some of the sharp peaks and adds a few real-world events against the sales curve. Note that the Marvel upward peak in 1977 is likely from Roy Thomas convincing Marvel senior leadership to allow him to create a 6-issue mini-series of the new movie Star Wars, which is credited with saving the company from bankruptcy.

That 1968 sale and the change in the fortunes of Marvel are well-aligned, though not causally linked via this data. So we have correlation vs causation event here — but correlation is strongly predictive. Stan brought over 35 years of experience managing creative teams and writing dialog for comics to the fore for Marvel’s success. Notice how many people attempted to assume the Editor-in-Chief role after Stan left it, and were only in the job a year or two. It was not until Jim Shooter took the Editor-in-Chief position that Marvel’s sales fortunes began to turn around. Shooter demanded hewing to a universal continuity for Marvel. Though the creative talent chafed against it, sales improved throughout Shooter’s tenure, and declined after his departure.

It is worth observing that the two Editors-in-Chief who practiced or demanded continuity were the most successful in financial benefit to the company.